Bizarro Back Issues: Iron Man in Castle Frankenstein! (1977)
Of all the spoooooky stories that I dig up to read every October, the ones that I like the best are the ones where the supernatural elements are just completely out of place. There's a level to that stuff that's perfect for Halloween and the way that the best horror stories, where the scary stuff is unexpected and jarring and wrong, and can strike at anyone at any time.
And then there's the level where you get stuff like Iron Man fighting Frankenstein.And yes: I said Frankenstein when referring to the monster. Gnash your teeth in pedantic fury all you want, but as the more famous member of the Frankenstein family, and as someone whose actual name -- at least in Marvel comics -- is "The Monster Of Frankenstein," it's a perfectly valid shortening, and all y'all haters can deal with it.
If anyone starts calling Captain Marvel "Shazam," though, you're still free to point out that he's the wizard, not the super-hero.
Anyway, this particular Frankenstory was a two-part tale that ran in the pages of Invincible Iron Man #101 and 102 by two of the Bronze Age's best: Bill Mantlo and George Tuska. And just by hearing those two names, I knew before I even cracked the cover that it was going to be a good one.
Mantlo is, after all, the incredible writer who took a toy line with exactly one figure and an ad with suggestions on what you could pretend he was doing with a couple of LEDs and turned it into a star-spanning 80-issue epic in the pages of ROM: Spaceknight, and his tenure on books like Hulk and Marvel Two-In-One during this era produced some of Marvel's wildest stories. And as for Tuska, he's one of the true greats of the '70s, with dynamic layouts and exaggerated figures that made him perfect for illustrating the super-hero battles of the era. This is essentially the perfect team to create a masterpiece of over-the-top action.
And this one's about as far over-the-top as it gets, to the point where it starts with Iron Man cruising into communist China and stealing himself a fighter jet.
See, Iron Man's just finished having one of his annual punch-ups with the Mandarin, so his armor's too drained to fly him back to the good ol' US of A. It is not too drained to take on an entire Chinese airbase, apparently, but I guess that's to be expected when your design is almost completely based around shooting lasers out of your hands, with the jet boots only thrown in as an afterthought.
Regardless, the Chinese army lets him go with the jet -- which, according to Iron Man, is due to them recognizing the Avengers as a truly global peacekeeping force that just happens to have a dude named Captain America calling the shots -- and he flies off towards Europe. Fortunately for him, the control panel is one of his own designs, so he's able to set the autopilot. Then -- and this is when I knew things were going to be amazing -- he decides it's a good idea to go to sleep while flying a fighter jet.
It probably goes without saying that this was before Tony quit drinking.
As you might expect, this doesn't end well, but surprisingly it's not because he plows directly into a mountain three minutes after takeoff. Instead, he wakes up on the near side of the Iron Curtain, only to find that he's being shot at:
Tony Stark, everybody. Smart enough to build an invincible suit of robot armor in a cave, but not smart enough to realize that flying a Chinese fighter jet into Europe in 1977 was probably a bad idea.
A few more missiles later, though, and even the allegedly invincible Iron Man can't stay aloft, and by the incredible magic of coincidence,he crashes to the ground right outside of... Castle Frankenstein! Then, in a sentence I have always wanted to type, Iron Man is immediately set upon by gnomes.
I'm honestly not sure which I like more: The fact that Iron Man crashing into the dirt makes the sound "VASHTOOM!", or the one deer that's clearly being weirded the hell out by what she's seeing. That doe has seen some stuff, man.
The gnomes are, of course, some of Dr. Frankenstein's lesser creations -- the Fun-Size versions, if you will -- and when they alert the full-size model to Iron Man's presence, they all decide to haul him back to the castle and see what's up. That's about when Tony wakes up, and, finding himself being carried around by a Frankenstein, takes the perfectly logical course of action of flipping out.
As awesome of that panel of Frankenstein pounding the crap out of Iron Man's head is, it doesn't last long. That's the thing about pitting Iron Man against the supernatural: Frankenstein may be a pretty scary monster to a normal dude, but this is a guy who just got finished using his laser armor to fight a dude with space-rings that could disintegrate the world. A shambling stitched-together mockery of life just isn't that scary, no matter how ridiculous his vest is.
That's why Iron Man basically just starts wailing on Frank and the Gnomes, karate-chopping dudes and tackling them with his jet boots and generally showing the superiority of the Stark brand of mad science in action. And it's also why Mantlo, sixteen pages into a seventeen-page comic, gets yet another villain involved.
Say hello to Dreadknight:
Despite his spooooky appearance (and the fact that he's riding around on Nightmare Moon), Dreadknight isn't supernatural at all. Instead, just like Iron Man and Frankenstein, he's product of mad science -- specifically, Dr. Doom science. And that's the best kind!
See, Dreadknight was once just a Latverian engineer named Bram Velsing, who made some wisecracks about Dr. Doom behind his back, and man, you really ought to know better when you're in the same laboratory where that guy built a time machine. Doom is, of course, displeased, and to punish Velsing, he puts a mask on him and then shoots him in the face with The Bio Fuser!
So, just so we're clear on this, Dr. Doom has a laser gun that will make a mask part of your face. That is an alarmingly specific weapon.
After wandering around for a while with his new face, coincidence takes hold yet again and leads Dreadknight to Castle Frankenstein. He's taken care of there, but after engineering himself up a lance that can shoot laser beams and ropes -- I think he was basing it on one of the Penguin's umbrellas from Batman '66 -- he decides to take over. That's when Iron Man shows up.
And in a coincidence so big that it should've gotten top billing on the cover, it turns out that Dreadnight has a special Iron Man Armor Polarity Reversing Handcuff Machine down in the basement for just such an occasion!
That's also where he's holding the obscure-but-awesome Victoria Frankenstein, because he wants the Secrets of Creation, which basically amount to the Frankenstein family cookbook. He starts zapping her with his lance to get her to tell him, apparently forgetting that he should probably not do this right in front of the super-strong monster to whom she is about equivalent to a mother.
Frankenstein and Iron Man both break free of their respective bonds and in the Mighty Marvel tradition, fighting ensues. There's a mid-air battle with Iron Man knocking Dreadknight off of his horse, and he ends up finding himself at the mercy of Frankenstein.
On The Best Show On WFMU, radio host Tom Scharpling often talks about a scene from the movie Class of 1984, in which a teacher takes on a gang of evil students. At one point, there's one student dangling off a balcony above a stage begging the teacher to pull him up, but then he pulls out a knife and tries to kill the teacher while still being held over a fatal drop.
You can probably see where I'm going with this:
Yes, Dreadknight pulls out his laser gun -- because he apparently had a laser gun this whole time -- and takes one last shot at Frankenstein before plummetting to his apparent doom. Thus, the threat of the Dreadknight is over, Castle Frankenstein is once again in the hands of the good kind of monster, and Iron Man decides to get the hell out of there and go get a drink.
And honestly, can you blame him?